The caste system has been one of the specific problems of the Indian democratic revolution. It is linked to the specific nature of the evolution of Indian society and has been one of the most important means for the exploitation of the labouring masses. Sanctioned by the Brahminical Hindu religion, Varnashrama Dharma legitimized the oppression of the working people, and the enslavement and degradation of one section of the masses, reducing them to a near animal existence. For the ruling classes in India, from the ancient to the modern period, the caste system served both as an ideology as well as a social system that enabled them to repress and exploit the majority of toilers.
Invaders from other lands who came to rule over India, adjusted with this system, as it suited their class interests; religions like Islam and Christianity, which profess the equality of all men, adjusted with it, allowing its believers to be divided on the basis of caste, because they did not interfere with this system of exploitation. Today, caste ideology is still an important part of the reactionary ruling class ideological package, and it serves to divide the working masses, hampering the development of class contradiction of production, caste based inequalities and discrimination, the practice of untouchability and the belief in Brahminical superiority, are still as much a part of the socio-economic life of the country. Caste is being used in the corrupt electoral politics of the ruling classes. To root out the caste system we must first understand its origin and development and evaluate the successes and failures of the various struggles against the caste system and Brahminical ideology.
Origin Of the Caste System
The history of the caste system can be traced back to over 3,000 years. It is inextricably linked to the development of class society, emergenceof the state, the development of the feudal mode of production and the continuous but often forcible assimilation of tribal groups, with their own customs and practices, into the exploitative agrarian economy. The origin and development of the system can be traced through the following periods:
1. Vedic Period: The period from 1500 BC, when Aryan pastoral tribes and non-agricultural tribal communities took to agriculture; the emergence of agriculture as the dominant production system; to the rise of the state around 500 BC.
2. The Period from 500 BC to the 4th century AD: The period of the expansion of agriculture based on Shudra labour; the growth of trade and its decline; the rise of small kingdoms; to the emergence of feudalism.
3. The Period from the 4th century AD onwards: When the development of feudalism took place, and Brahminical Hinduism and the jati system acquired their complex and rigid form.
For a country as vast as India, and a history so ancient, the above can only be broad periods which can be covered here, but there will be differences in every specific region. Yet the broad trends apply to the whole of India.
Indus Valley Civilization and Caste
Some Marxist historians have speculated that the roots of the caste system may be traced to the theocratic Indus Valley Civilization and in the tribal belief in magical power and pollution, common among Dravidian tribes. But there is no substantive proof to support this speculation nor is there any adequate explanation as to why such a complex system would exist in this earlier period. That the Harrappan city population was divided into these classes, with endogamous hierarchically placed groups, is not yet known. It is a fact that primitive tribes possess belief in the magical power of certain objects and in pollution, but from this one cannot conclude that in the earliest period whole sections within tribal communities were considered permanently polluting. Hence, we cannot conclude that some form of the caste system existed in the pre-Vedic period.
The study of this earlier period of history (3000 BC to 1500 BC) shows that even before the Aryan (Indo-European) tribes entered India, various communities and tribes with varying economic and social-cultural systems existed within the country. Some had developed agriculture, a division of labour, and even trade, and there were sharp class differences. They were in the copper age. Others ranged from shifting cultivation (jhum) to hunting, fishing and food gathering. Some were herders. Many of them had matrilineal social organizations. The pastoral Indo-European tribes with patrilineal social organization entered India in waves from around 1500 BC.
From Tribal to Class Society
Class society emerged from the clashes of the various pastoral Aryan tribes and the indigenous tribes and the development of agriculture with the widespread use of iron. It took the form, initially, of the four Varnas. Hence, we can say that the four Varnas were the form that class society took in the later Vedic and the Upanishad period.
As the Vedic Aryans entered from the Punjab area and spread towards the Gangetic plain from around 1500 BC, they were already divided into an aristocracy (Rajanya) and priests (Brahmins) and the ordinary clansmen (vis). In the incessant conflicts and wars that were associated with their spread eastwards, conflicts among the various pastoral Aryan tribes and with local tribes for cattle, water sources, land and then also for slaves, sections of tribes that were defeated began to be enslaved, known as dasas-dasys. The wars increased the importance of the chieftains. They relied on ritualism to enhance their prestige and consolidate it, and to appropriate the surplus through these rituals. Tributes of cattle and slaves were given by the ordinary vis to the rajanyas. Major and minor yagnas were increasingly performed by the rajanyas, in alliance with the Brahmins. The ruling elite and the priests lived off the gifts (dand/bali) given to them by the vis at these yagnas. At this stage, the tribal organizations based on clan and kin were still dominant. The emergence of the Brahmin and Kshatriya Varnas was a process of the breaking down of the kin based relations among these ruling elites and the creation of a broader class — the Varna — which lived off the tributes and gifts from the vis and subjugated the tribes. The pastoral tribes had adopted agriculture; and from the local tribes, the chieftain clans and the priestly clans were being incorporated into the Kshatriya and Brahmin Varnas respectively.
The subjugated tribals, both Aryan and non-Aryan, gradually came to formthe Shudra Varna. All of them were not slaves. While domestic slavery existed, it was basically the Vaishya peasants (from the vis the broader Vaishya Varna emerged) and the Shudras who reared the cattle and tilled the soil.
The widespread use of iron, not only for weapons but also for agricultural purposes, from around 800 BC, marked a qualitative change in the production system of the ancient tribal societies. Plough based agriculture could generate considerable surplus on a regular basis. Dense forests could be cut down and land cleared for cultivation. Thus iron enabled the agrarian economy to become the prominent production system in this ancient period. The spread of agriculture was achieved at the cost of the non-agricultural tribes. They were either subjugated or displaced from the forests and their traditional means of livelihood. The conquest of new territories and the possibility of regular settlements further enhanced the importance of chieftains. Tribal oligarchies emerged. Many of the chieftains turned into kings who needed grander yagnas to consolidate their rule not only over their own clans and tribes but also over the territories they commanded (the janapada). The Varnashrama Dharma was already being developed by the Brahmin priestly class. The rituals became more complex, elaborate and wealth consuming. These rituals were the means by which the surplus could be redistributed. The surplus appropriated in the form of gifts was shared by the ruling Kshatriyas and the Brahmin priests. Gifts were no longer voluntary. They were forced. The Aryadharma and Varna ideology legitimized the increasing power of the kings and priests and the absorption of the subjugated tribals into the lower Varnas. It became the ideological expression of the classes that had emerged from the womb of the various tribes. Those groups that did not accept the rituals and forced tributes were considered anarya or mlechha.
Development of agriculture, including paddy cultivation in the Gangetic plains, was accompanied by the increasing division of labour and the growth of trade. Private property in land emerged. Towns developed. Few classes came into existence — the Vaishyatraders and the gahapatis, the landowners. The gahapatis did not themselves till the land but got slaves or shudras to till it. Tensions between the upper two Varnas and the lower Varnas, and between those who owned and those who laboured, emerged. This led to the emergence of the ancient State. The first States emerged in the Gangetic plains, in Bihar.
Rise of the State
The emergence of the Kosala and Magadha monarchies around the 6th century BC was the form in which the State developed in ancient India. The ruling clans in the proto-states and these early States relied heavily on yagnas and rituals to buttress and legitimize their rule. The early States had the explicit function of upholding the Varna order and private property. Gifts were replaced by taxes. But the upper two Varnas, the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were not taxed. A standing army came into existence.
The Varnashrama ideology reflected and buttressed this class situation in the interests of the ruling Kshatriyas and Brahmins — ‘the Brahmen and Kshetriya enclose the vaishya and shudra,’ ‘a Visshya a tributary to another to be oppressed at will… a Shudra… the servant of another, to be removed at will, to be slain at will.’ In the context of the differences between the classes becoming sharp, the Varna divisions had become rigid. Social distance and endogamy came to be emphasized.
But the newly emerged classes, the lower two Varnas and the non-subjugated tribal communities did not accept this ideology and the Varna hierarchy with Brahminical superiority. The rise of the Lokayata, Mahavir, Buddha and other opposing sects and philosophical systems was a challenge to this Vedic yagna-based Brahminism and Varna-based hierarchy. These sects gained the support of traders and artisans organized into guilds and the semi-tribal kings and chieftains. Later, with the consolidation of the state formation with Mauryan rule (4th–3rd centuries BC), the reduction in the importance of yagnas and the consolidation of the agricultural economy, Brahminism itself underwent transformation. Reducing the importance of yagnas and borrowing certain principles from Buddhism, Brahminism tried to reassert its ideological role. Yet, it had to contend with Buddhism and Jainism for commercial and royal patronage and for social domination. This reflects the struggles put up by the various classes and peoples to the consolidation of the caste system based on Brahmin-Kshatriya superiority. Yet, Brahminism played a key role in the development and consolidation of the state in ancient India and the development and formalization of a class society in the form of the Varnas.
The Mauryan Empire
The Mauryan Empire, which rose in the Magadha region in the 3rd century BC, was the first major fully formed state in India (after the Indus Valley civilization). It was an ‘ancient communal and state ownership’ type of state with Shudra-based production. The origins of the Mauryas themselves are obscure, but the State was guided by the famous Brahmin Kautilya, also known as Chanakya. Chanakya’s Arthashatra was the first and hence frank account of how to rule. It laid down the principles of statecraft without any ideological or religious cover-up. The Mauryan state was a centralized state which took the responsibility for the extension of agriculture and trade. This ‘arthashastra’ state settled groups of Shudras where lands could be cleared and brought under the plough. The sita lands were farmed directly by the state with the help of Shudra (serf) labour, under an autocratic regime, while rashtra lands were farmed by the free peasantry (Vaishya). These rashtra lands were taxed on various counts. The state took taxes from the Vaishyas and labour from the Shudras, providing them with the necessities of cultivation. While slavery also existed, slaves were used primarily by landowners for domestic work and by the state for processing the grain collected in the form of taxes and for the production of some commodities. The state also monopolized the mining of minerals. By this period, a class of dependent peasants and labourers (helots) — Shudra by Varna — had been consolidated. But the Vaishyas who carried out trade and settled in urban areas began to distinguish themselves from their peasant brethren. In latter centuries peasant cultivation became the hall mark of the Shudras. The ordinary, free peasantry was pushed down into the Shudra Varna, while the Vaishya Varna became the monopoly of the traders and merchants. At the same time the class of Kshetraswamis, those who got their lands cultivated by sharecroppers and dependent labourers, came to become the norm.
In the Mauryan period and up to the 3rd century AD trade was an important aspect of the economy. While trade along the dakshinapatha and to the North along the uttarapatha grew in the Mauryan period, in later centuries trade with the Roman empire (1st and 2nd centuries AD) also became important. In the South, trade links with the South-East Asian societies, including China also existed. Thus, the class of artisans and merchants who were linked to the market were socially and economically important. Artisans and merchant guilds were powerful. Also, during this period artisan guilds were not strictly hereditary.
Endogamy and Rigid Marriage Norms
The restrictions on marriage, part of the tribal endogamous practices, were adopted by Brahminism, though their social purpose became different. In early Vedic period, tribal endogamy was not strictly followed in the assimilation of groups. But as class differences started to emerge and the need for a large number of labourers grew, the two upper Varnas enforced strict rules regarding the form of a marriage; a method of distancing themselves from the lower two Varnas, while at the same time sanctioning hypergamy. (Hypergamy is the marriage of a man of a higher Varna to a woman of a lower Varna.) Hypergamy allowed ‘converted’ Brahmins and Kshatriyas to seek partners from among their own tribesfolk, absorbed as Vaishyas or Shudras. It allowed political alliances with non-Kshatriya chieftains and kings. At the same time, marriage rules for the lower two Varnas were not restrictive — allowing for the rapid increase in the population of the labouring people. In a primitive economy, human labour is the main productive asset. Hence even marriage rules developed according to the interests of the ruling classes and gained ideological legitimacy through the rigid Varna divisions.
Spread of Buddhism and Jainism
The agrarian economy had no use for the expensive rituals based on the sacrifice of animals, including cattle wealth. The Vaishyas and Shudras, who paid taxes and laboured, discontented with their inferior social status, supported the new preachers like Mahavir and Buddha and the sects established by them which opposed these yagnas and the superiority of the Brahmins who promoted them. These sects opposed the Varna hierarchy, and Buddha’s sanghas were open to all members including the lowly Chandalas. But neither Buddha nor Mahavir preached against the new relations of production that had emerged, and a slave could not join the sangha without the permission of his master. Shudras from the sita lands were also not free to join the sanghas. However, both Buddhism and Jainism spread all over India gaining the support of the powerful artisan and merchant guilds. Although their philosophical content and material form changed over the centuries, they provided a tremendous challenge that lasted for over 1000 years. The early ascetics, the Buddhist and Jain monks, became part of wealthy monasteries which were supported by lavish gifts from merchant and artisan guilds and others. From around the 2nd century, as royal patronage increased, and they received land grants, these monasteries also became landowning institutions. Yet these religions retained their influence and Buddhism maintained its image as a religion that opposed the hierarchical Varna order and Brahminical superiority.
Brahminism in a New Form With the decline of yagnas, a transformation in the social role of the Brahmins took place and with that Brahminism also underwent a transformation. Brahmins, encouraged and protected by kings, brought the borders of the kingdoms under agriculture, in the process ‘aryanizing’ the tribals in the region. From Ashoka’s times, the free peasants and the Brahmns migrated in search of fresh lands to bring under agriculture. The ashrams set up by the Brahmins in the forests were the pioneer settlements that developed contacts with the tribes in the area, and brought them under the command of the plough and the Vedas. The local tribals were incorporated almost wholly as jatis of the Shudra Varna, and retained their tribal customs and became the labourers on the land, carrying out the various tasks necessary for agricultural operations. The tribal elite were incorporated into the Brahmn Varna. The Brahmins changed the form of their religion. Sacrificial yagnas became symbolic. The principle of ahimsa was adopted from Buddhism. The older Vedic Codes, which were glorifications of pastoral life and wars, gave way to newer Gods, like the cult of Krishna, and also Shiva and later Vishnu. Tribal rituals were adopted, for instance, the agani rituals, performed only by Brahmins in south Indian temples, were non-Vedic in origin. Tribal worship of mother Goddesses was also incorporated into the Hindu religion. In fact, with the development of feudalism, the feminine names of certain tribes, e.g., Matangi, Chandali, Kaivarti, and their tribal totems, were also incorporated into the Hindu fold. Gods and Goddesses were incorporated into the Hindu pantheon as avatars of the main God, Vishnu. This was the ideological manifestation of the social process of the absorption of tribes and semi-tribes into the spreading agrarian economy at the lower levels of the social hierarchy. The significance of the Varnashrama Dharma in this process, the importance of the Brahmins in the unfolding agrarian economy and the generation of surplus, their role in the daily and seasonal rituals connected with cultivation increased their importance and social base. In the king’s court they provided the genealogy that proved the Kshatriya/Brahmin status of the ruler’s family; hence, Brahminism was supported by the rulers. Yet in the period up to the 6th century AD, at least, Brahminism and the caste system could not gain hegemony in India, due to various factors like the invasion of foreign groups like Kushans and Shakas which ruled over large territories, the strength of artisan and trade guilds, as also the influence of Buddhism and Jainism.
Extension to the South
Aryadharma spread to the South, along with iron, from the 6th century BC, along the trade routes through the Deccan. When the groups of Brahmins entered the South the Varna scheme had already become rigid in the North. In the South, a division of labour and a class differentiated society with a developed culture, within the structure of tribal society, already existed. They coexisted with tribes based on different subsistence systems and social organizations. The society was semi-tribal, in transition from tribe to a full-fledged class society. Both exchange and conflict between the various groups with different subsistence systems prevailed. For the non-agricultural groups raids on the agricultural settlements were an important means of obtaining necessary resources. Trade across the sea was also developing. Brahmins, with their knowledge of iron and superior technology of cultivation, and the Varna scheme, obviously suited the peasant settlements and their chieftains. The Varnashrama Dharma helped to bring order to the society in which conflicts between the peasants and the labourers had emerged. In keeping with the change in the North, the peasant communities were incorporated into the Shudra Varnas. The chieftains closely linked to the peasantry, did not form a separate Varna. The local priestly clans became part of the Brahmin Varna. Buddhism and Jainism also spread in South India from the 3rd century BC and they attracted a following among different sections of the people; artisans and traders in the towns and semi-tribal groups. With flourishing Roman trade, the Buddhist and Jain centres received major donations from the artisan and trade guilds. The three religions contended for political influence and all three got support in greater and lesser degrees.
Brahminism itself expanded in the form of various sects, the most prominent being Shaivism and Vaishnavism. These devotional sects drew upon popular tradition and thus helped to transform a scriptural religion into more popular devotional cults which could strike roots among the peasantry and others. The philosophical content to this new Brahminism was given by Sankara in the later period (800 AD). This Veerashaiva preacher not only contested Jainism and Buddhism but also organizationally strengthened the religion by establishing the maths in different parts of the country.
State Formation in the South
The first major state formation in the Deccan took place with the establishment of the Satavahana power in the 2nd century AD. The Satavahanas, also known as the Andhras, supported the Brahmins and the chaturvarna system. But they also financially supported the development of the cave monasteries in the Deccan and the Buddhist centre at Nagarjunakonda and Kanchi. In the deep South, the rise of the Pallava empire in 575 AD marks the first important state formation. This marked the domination of the agrarian economy over the other modes of production in the region. The Pallavan state introduced important changes in political and military organization, and also promoted Brahminism, by the setting up of Brahmin villages as centres of learning and promoting the use of Sanskrit. Pallava rule was based on the landowning peasant class and kings promoted the expansion of the agrarian order. The first Pallavan ruler is said to have distributed three lakh ploughs that could be pulled with bullocks. It is from this period that the clashes between the three religions became sharp and there are many historical accounts of the conversion of kings and the persecution of other religious groups. Mahenuravarman, the Pallavan ruler, converted from Jainism to Shaivism and is said to have killed 8000 Jains. The first Pallava ruler was also a Jain who was converted to Shaivism. The early Hoysalas were also Jains.
Brahminism provided the legitimacy to the rulers of the chakrvartin, the ruler over a territory, which replaced the king as the ruler over his people. The Brahmins became the religious basis for the legitimacy of the state that emerged. The Varna scheme became the means to break the kinship structures and create broader class type identities. Hence Brahminism consolidated in South India with the support of the state. The close alliance between the Brahmins and the ruling groups can also be seen from the fact that in the Brahmin centres for imparting education, the ghatikas, both religious scriptures and the martial arts were taught. The art of administration was also imparted in these centres.
II. Emergence and Consolidation of Feudalism
From around the 6th century AD, in the early medieval period, the caste system, based on jatis, began to consolidate in most parts of India. It is clearly linked to the rise of feudalism all over India, when a class of intermediaries was created which expropriated the surplus in the form of revenue or share of the produce from the labouring masses. This was accompanied by the development of the self-sufficient village economy. The decline of trade and artisan guilds, primarily due to the collapse of the Roman empire after the 3rd century AD, the contraction of money circulation, the settling down of artisans in the villages, created the conditions for the rise of feudalism. Land grants began to be given to Brahmins, Buddhist monasteries and to army officials. Though this process began in the Satavahana rule in the 2nd century AD, and with the Guptas in 4th century AD, it became widespread from the 5th century onwards. From the 7th century onwards, appointing feudal intermediaries who collected revenue and took on administrative tasks became common. The distribution of land grants to Brahmins, in the period of rising feudalism, meant that from the beginning they constituted a part of the feudal class. This process essentially took place between the fifth and the seventh centuries, especially, in the parts that were colonized by the migrating peasant settlers — in Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat, and central and western Madhya Pradesh, in the Deccan. It began under the Pallava rule in the 6th century in the South, but reached its peak during the Chola rule from the ninth century onwards, in Tamil Nadu, parts of Karnataka and the Kerala regions.
In this period the proliferation of jatis also began. Jati, originally a term used for a tribe with its own distinct customs, coming into a Varna, gradually replaced the Varna since it became the main organization in which people were bound together. The original peasant settlers emerged as specific peasant jatis in particular regions. In the South the dominant peasant landowning jatis were considered as satvik Shudras, ranked only next to the Brahmins. A number of jatis and upa-jatis, each with an occupational specialization necessary for agriculture, or for social life in the village, also developed. The carpenter, blacksmith, potter, tanner, skinner of dead cattle were available in the bigger villages. As also the barber, the washerman and the priest. They provided their skills to the peasant and other families including the families of the feudal intermediaries. In return they began to be given a share of the village produce. Initially the share was decided by nattar, the association of the dominant peasant community. In later times the shares became more formal, they were also given the right to till a part of the village lands. The jajmani system, the balutedari or ayagari system emerged within the new arrangement of the village structure. Money was not needed for daily exchange. This arrangement greatly aided the Brahmins and the other upper castes from the landowning, feudal intermediaries to raise their ritual status and social prestige, since the lower castes were available in full complement to do all the various types of physical and menial labour. The upper castes did not have to soil their hands. The jati system was suitable for the feudal mode of production and it would not be wrong to call this jati feudalism.
It is in this period that the number of Untouchable castes swelled greatly. From the 4th century BC itself, there are references to the Untouchables, in Patanjali, for example, who mentions two types of Shudras, the Nirashrit (excluded) and the Ashrit. But their numbers were restricted. Gradually newer tribal groups began to be included. But it is in the feudal period that their numbers went up greatly, the Chamars and Rajaks, for example, were reduced to the Untouchable status of an Untouchable. Tribal groups, subjugated by force after being dispossessed of their forests/lands, means of livelihood and freedom were relegated to an Untouchable status. Some artisan groups too were pushed down from the Shudra to the ati-Shudra ranks. They were in the main bonded agricultural labourers who were denied by religious injunctions any right to own wealth (gold, etc.) and land. Their only dharma was to labour for the entire village, especially, for the landowning class, but live outside the village at a distance, polluting even by their shadow. Maximum surplus could be extracted from the Untouchable labourers, forced into a low level of material existence and perpetual servitude.
Brahmins, both as individuals and as groups, were granted lands and a share of the revenue from the villages. They lived off the surplus created by the villagers. The Brahmadeva villages in South India became the centres for Brahminical culture and learning. In these villages, Brahmins combined their control over the productive resources with administrative control over the life of the village and the surrounding region. Brahmins were allowed to keep the revenue of the villages, or the larger share (Melavarm) of the total produce, they got their own lands cultivated through tenants or sharecroppers. The Dharma allowed them the right to own land, they could supervise cultivation, but they could not cultivate it themselves. A section of the Brahmin castes were closely associated with the rulers. Apart from providing fictitious genealogies to prove the Kshatriya status of the ruling groups, they were the royal purohits and in many kingdoms they held administrative posts. These Brahmins, who helped to generate the surplus, gained the highest social prestige in the feudal era.
As landowners and revenue collectors, closely associated with the rule of the kingdom, the Brahmins held wide authority in the political, social and religious life. They were active members of the feudal ruling class, and its ideologues as well.
At the same time, in this period, the Kshatriya Varna consolidated itself in North-West India. This process did not take place in the South. The class of feudal intermediaries, as also big landowners with feudal armed retainers who lived off the land grants and share of revenue became a permanent feature of feudalism. In the North, the ruling or powerful clans of those invaders like Gujjars, Hunas and Arya Kshatriyas, and the intermediaries consolidated to form the Rajput caste. The clan-kin connections of these groups from the feudal strata were consolidated through marriage alliances to form the Rajput jatis. The word originates from Rajrutra, one who controlled a few villages in the early medieval period. In this period the village headman also came to be recognized as an important post. Normally, large landowners from the dominant peasant caste, they separated themselves from their cultivating peasant castemen, and consolidated their position through kin relationships and marriage relationships among themselves over a region. The Reddis in Andhra Pradesh (from pedda rettis) and the Gaudas emerged as separate caste groups through this process in the medieval feudal period.
The process of the consolidation of the jati structure was completed in the main by the 10th century, before the raids of Mohammed of Ghazni. The feudal class upheld the chaturvarna. Even rulers who professed Buddhism were proud upholders of the chaturvarna. This scheme provided a ritual status to the various jatis. All castes connected with physical labour (peasants, artisans), or those that challenged Brahminical superiority or the notions of hierarchy (kayasthas or court writers, vaids or doctors), were classed as Shudra. But since this scheme was unable to explain the multiplicity of the various jatis, the varnasamkara theory was put forward. This theory explained the various jatis as being a result of the unsanctioned marriages between men and women of different Varnas. The Manusmriti (1st or 2nd century AD) proved to be a harbinger of the feudal order that emerged, providing it with a perfect ideological justification. This theory was nothing but the justification for the superiority of the exploiting classes and provided sanction for the lack of freedom and degradation of the majority.
It is often claimed that untouchability arose as a result of the ritually polluting nature of certain occupations and their low value. However, the nature of occupations cannot create a class of permanently polluting people. The ideology of ritual pollution and purity, on the contrary, provided the means of creating a class of semi-slaves for the agricultural and urban economy. As a ruling class that controlled the land and labour of the exploited classes, and in the condition of strong resistance and sharp class contradictions, Brahmins, as active members of this ruling class, developed the theory of pollution and purity. For this, they may well have borrowed from tribal terms, with the Brahmins themselves as the reference point to measure purity. The occupations became polluting. The ideology of Varna became the ideology of the whole society, which shows the importance of the caste system in the feudal mode of production.
The significance of Brahminical ideology in the generation of surplus, in the legitimization of rule and, above all, in the consolidation of an agrarian village economy based on intense exploitation, gave it hegemony over Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhist and Jain centres had become centres of opulence competing for royal grants. Though these religions too had changed to suit the feudal order, and they too accepted the jati system, yet their role in the economy declined. They remained as ideological centres counter to Brahminism, inspite of the fact that they were hounded and violently suppressed by various rulers, especially after the 7th century. With the invasion of the Turks at Sarnath and Nalanda, Buddhism could not recover in India from this destructive attack.
The establishment of Turkish power in North India, through the slave dynasty in the 13th century, marked an important phase in the feudal mode of production. They centralized the administration and introduced a more systematic system of revenue collection. The composition of the ruling class underwent a change. Initially, it was the Turk slave families and their relatives that ruled, they were successively replaced by ex-slaves of Indian origin, Indianized Turks and foreign immigrants, to be replaced by even more foreigners. The most important changes related to the methods in which the rights to revenues collection (iqta) were assigned. Originally restricted only for life, on the decision of the king, by the end of the 15th century they were made hereditary. The Turks were urban-based and favoured Islam. Thus, Turkish rulers displaced the original feudatories and created new ones over a period of time.
The administrative changes introduced by the Turks, and adopted in the Deccan too, introduced changes in the powers of revenue collection and administration, affecting military service holders, administrators, village headmen and the priestly class, the officeholders came to be called inamdars, watandars, iqtadars, deshmukhs-desais, and later as jagirdars, during Mughal rule. Although some of the earlier intermediaries who had lost their posts regained them during the later part of the Turk rule, yet in this period the composition of the feudal classes in North India was not stable. However, this did not affect the structure of the village economy. The Turks introduced new techniques in the science of war. They also gave a fillip to trade, commerce and artisan production in the urban areas. Hence, this period saw the development of the productive forces in Indian society.
Although the same instability in the feudal ruling class did not take place in South India, the emergence of the Vijaynagara Kingdom in the 14th century, a militarist rule, also brought changes in the ruling class. The Vijaynagara kings owed the success of their rise to power to the military techniques they had introduced, which they, in turn, had learnt from the conquering Muslims. They were allied with a class of warriors, called the nayakas. These nayakas emerged as powerful intermediaries over the older local chiefs. They were granted amaram tenures — the right to a major share of the produce in the land, in return for maintaining an agreed number of troops and animals, ever-ready to join the war along with the forces of the king. From the 14th century onwards these nayakas also became a part of the feudal class. Both the Vijaynagara kings and their feudatories patronized the temples and the Brahmins, and Brahminical Hinduism remained a very important part of the legitimizing ideology of the Vijaynagara kingdom till its decline in the 16th century.
In the later feudal period various tribal kingdoms came up. This denotes both the differentiation emerging within the tribes and their Hinduization over the centuries. The Dome founded a kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas in the 13th century, the Bhars came to power in Assam in the 13th century, and ruled upto the 18th century, the Nagbanshis and the Cheros ruled in Chottanagpur and Palamu in the 12th century, the Gonds founded kingdoms in Central India between the 15th and the 18th centuries, the Mahadev Kolis founded a kingdom in south Gujarat in the 17th century. As these tribes settled down to agricultural production, they were influenced by the technologically and culturally advanced Brahmins and peasants settled in the area through land grants; inequalities within the tribal societies grew. In the tribes in which a small clan made a push for power, kingdoms emerged. Although some of these early kingdoms opposed Brahminism in their initial phase, and some of them worshipped both Hindu and Buddhist Gods, all these tribal kingdoms were active supporters of Brahminical Hinduism. They invited Brahmins to settle in their kingdoms, attracting them with generous land grants. They also got genealogies prepared, to claim Kshatriya status. Within the tribal kingdoms too, the ruling elite adopted Varnashrama Dharma to legitimize their power before their own people and before neighbouring kingdoms. A lot of these tribal kingdoms later became intermediaries of more powerful rulers, such as the Mughals and the Marathas.
Resurgence of trade and Commodity Production
The resurgence of trade and commodity production by artisan groups began around the 12th century in South India and a century later in the North. It led to the strengthening of the traders and artisan groups all over the country. The temples became centres for the growth of towns. Military encampments and administrative towns and ports developed as urban centres. The result of this was the assertion of the artisans and trading castes to break out of the constraints of Brahminical control. In South India, the rise of the left handed caste association, the Idangai, was the most powerful expression of the process. From the 12th century onwards, the artisan castes, especially those connected with urban trade, came together as the Idangai. Through this association they defended their rights against feudal agrarian domination and the oppression of traders. The right handed castes, the Velangai, tended to represent the agrarian related castes, and came from the low castes. As the putting out system developed for the production of certain commodities, the conflicts between the traders and the a rtisans dependent on them increased. In North India members of the artisan castes converted to Islam, for instance, the weavers, the julahas, etc.
Protest — The Bhakti Movement
The growth of commodity production and the political and cultural changes created the material conditions within the feudal society for the rise of protest against the caste system.
The caste system, with its emphasis on Vedic learning and Brahminical superiority, faced its next major blow in the form of the Bhakti movement. Spanning a period from the 12th to the 17th century, the Bhakti movement was a popular opposition to the caste system. Most of the Bhakti saints were from the artisan castes, like blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, although a few of the religious reformers were also Brahmins. A few, like Nandan ( a Nayanar), Tiruppan (an Aalvar), Chokhamela and Sant Ravidas, were from the Untouchable caste. The movement also brought women saints into the limelight. The Bhakti movement had a moderate stream, represented by the likes of Ramanuja, Gyaneshwar and Chaitanya, which stressed on the oneness of all before God. The more radical stream, comprising of saints like Basavanna, Tukaram, Namdev, Kabir and Guru Nanak, criticized caste discrimination and Brahminical hypocrisy openly. Some of them initiated measures of social reform as well. Kabir and Guru Nanak went out of the fold of Hinduism. The movement, by emphasizing the personal relation of the individual with God, transcended the barriers of caste. It struck a major blow at the concept of Brahminical superiority based on the monopoly of the knowledge of the Vedas.
The Bhakti movement was a major assault on the ideological and material premises of feudalism. Preaching in the local languages, it gave an impetus to the regional languages, laying the basis for the growth of nationalism in the different regions. Even though towards the end of this movement, a conservative trend also came up in the form of Ramdas and Tulsidas, who upheld the chaturvarna and sought the re-establishment of Brahminical superiority and prestige, yet, in the main, the Bhakti movement was a movement for religious and social reform. The movement, however, failed to break the caste system. The main reasons were that the movement did not attack the base of the caste system, the feudal mode of production and the land relations therein.
III. AgrarIan economy and ruling classes in the 17th and 18th Centuries
The Mughals who came to India in the 16th century from Central Asia consolidated their rule by associating with the Rajput chiefs and other upper caste intermediaries and the ruling groups of kingdoms annexed in North India and in the Deccan. Thus, throughout the early period, though the Mughals monetized the collection of revenue to some extent, and also increased the exploitation of the peasantry, yet, they did not basically affect the social structure of the agrarian village economy as it had evolved over the previous centuries. It consisted of the intermediaries at the top of the rural structure, who were also, invariably, large landlords themselves. Often they held a post from the ruler, which gave administrative responsibilities and powers. There were also village chiefs and village level officials like accountants. These office holders and feudatories lived off the revenue collected from the peasants. They also controlled lands which they got tilled by either tenants or sharecroppers. In some areas, they used the bonded labourers from the tribal or Untouchable castes. Most of these feudal intermediaries were from the upper most castes; Brahmins, Rajputs and even if they originally came from the Shudra cultivating castes, they had elevated themselves to Kshatriya or to a high non-Brahmin status. In some areas they had even acquired Brahmin status. The control of temples had given the Brahmins wide control over the resources of the agrarian economy in the South. The appointment of Brahmins to high administrative and military posts during the Vijaynagara rule further concentrated power and resources under their control. In Western Maharashtra too, the Maratha rule concentrated economic and political power in the hands of the Brahmins.
The main cultivating castes were exploited for revenue and innumerable taxes. Yet their rights to the land had evolved over the centuries, even if they were under the feudatories. The jajmani/balutedari system institutionalized the system of exchange between the services of the various castes and the peasants and the landlords. On the one hand, it formalized the share of the various castes to the produce, but on the other, it increased the power and prestige of the feudatories and Brahmins, and formalized the system of Begar (forced free labour). Higher caste landowning sections could withdraw from all manual work, especially, work connected with agriculture. The other castes served as their jajmans. It included free labour for a number of artisans and service castes, who served various families at the same time, but the Untouchable castes, were in many areas attached to a particular family. While specific Untouchable castes, in specific regions, served as lower level functionaries (watchman, general servants marking boundaries, relaying messages, etc.) of the administration, and for this they received the right to cultivate a small portion of the village lands, the vast majority of them were agricultural labourers. They have been called as bonded servants, eristic slaves, and landless serfs. The religious prescriptions suited this structure perfectly — while it was a sin for the higher castes to touch the plough, Untouchables could own no land nor acquire any capital in the form of wealth. Other prescriptions, like style and type of clothing, names, carriage customs, etc., served to emphasize their degraded status and reinforce it. In many parts of the country, the names for the Untouchable field labourers highlights this situation. Bonded labourers in south Gujarat are called halis (those who handle the plough). In UP, they are called halwahas, holiyas, and sewaks, in Punjab, halis and sepis. In Kerala, they were the adimas. Bondage was widespread during the time of the Mughals. According to estimates, more than 10 percent of the population comprised of agricultural labourers, most of them in various forms of bondage. At the beginning of the 19th century, in the southern provinces, this proportion was even higher. Almost all of them were from the lowest castes of tribals. The British colonialists inherited this structure when they began their rule.
Pre-British Role of the State in Upholding Caste
Given the repeated attempts by the oppressed castes to reject the caste system, to oppose Brahminical tyranny, it must be emphasized that the pre-British feudal state not only upheld the philosophy and ideology of relations of caste but also actively intervened to maintain it. The feudal king had the authority to intervene in caste disputes, even those related to ritual superiority. Expulsion from the caste or readmission, decisions on rights of particular castes to ritual practices and modes of worship were decided by the political-secular authority. Muslim rulers too arbitrated in these disputes. The Vijaynagara Kings, the Sultans of the Deccan, and even the Mughals arbitrated in the disputes. For the State, this served the purpose of punishing subjects, and also gaining financially — they collected fees for arbitration. But more important is the fact that since the feudal rulers depended on the caste system they had to maintain it. The rulers had the right to extract free labour (begar) from the artisan and service castes, as also from the Untouchables, especially, for public works. The ideological use of the caste system was clear, it upheld and legitimized the dharma of the rulers to wield power.
The growth and consolidation of the caste system was, therefore, not a spontaneous process, but linked to the support and power of the State. The caste system was upheld with violence. Brahminism, in addition, sanctioned violence by the uppermost castes against the Untouchables. They had the right to kill the Untouchables who in any way transgressed the limits. The caste system was maintained not only through the ideology of the religion but also through the sword.
The Varna system, and the caste system, having been such an important aspect of the socio-economic and political life of ancient and feudal India, much of political and economic activity was organized on caste-kin basis. Hence, a large number of social and economic conflicts were expressed in the form of conflicts between castes and religious sects — the conflicts between Buddhism, Jainism and the Brahminical sects, the conflict between the Shaivites and the Vaishanavas, the struggle between the right handed and the left handed castes, are examples of this. Since caste permeated the economic and political structures, it has taken this form to express the contradictions in the society. Tribals in India, too, have had a long glorious history of attempts to fight the feudal order served by Brahminical Hinduism. The struggles of the ancient Naga people, the Nishads and the Bhils, against those who ousted them from their ancient lands, their resistance to attempts at Aryanizaton — the forcible incorporation into the agrarian economy as semi-slaves — all are a part of this history. It is in this background that Brahminical Hinduism, in all its Shastras,smritis, and even in the epics, depicts the tribals who resisted in the most insulting and demeaning language. Eklavya, for instance, was the son of a tribal chieftain. Brahminism destroyed all the literature of the ideologies that opposed it, from Charvaka to Buddhism. The literature destroyed in India could only be found preserved in the monasteries in China and Tibet. This distinctive quality of Brahminical Hinduism has been hidden under the veneer of ahimsa and abstruse philosophy, and thousands of years of exploitation and parasitic existence could be justified under the clock of ritual superiority and contempt for manual work.
IV. The Impact Of British rule
Colonial rule did not touch or tamper with the Brahminical Hindu order and the inequitable caste system. The East India Company, in fact, gave a fresh lease of life to the chaturvarna system by incorporating it into the legal system being used in India. By passing local customary and caste practices, they upheld the Dharmashastras, appointing Brahmin pundits to advise the British judges in interpreting the Shastras in disputes relating to family and marriage, property and inheritance, and religious rights, including the status of specific castes. Hence the British legal system upheld the denial of entry into temples to the Untouchable castes in the name of protecting the ‘established rights of other castes.’ The British courts entertained caste claims regarding privileges and precedence of exclusiveness in respect to religious rituals as well. In the name of respecting the autonomy of castes, they upheld the disciplinary power of castes against violators of caste norms, even in inter-caste disputes. Thus, they upheld caste although in a much more restricted sphere than in the feudal period.
The early British rulers encouraged and financed the study of Sanskrit and the translation of Sanskrit texts into English. One section of the East Indian Company administration even attempted to make Sanskrit the medium of instruction in the universities in the system of education that they were setting up. It is another matter that the direct colonial racist interests were upheld when English was chosen as the medium of instruction.
Under pressure from the Non-Brahmin movement and the reformers, the British were forced to enact resolutions and legislation granting access to public places, tanks, schools, wells, etc., ( maintained out of public funds) to members of all castes and classes, but they did little to oversee their implementation.
Yet, at the same time, the British administrators, in their selfish interest of seeking support for colonial rule, implemented the policy of divide and rule, encouraged the conversion of the lower castes to Christianity by missionaries, and propagated the racist theory on the origin of caste, emphasizing the Indo-European origins of the Aryan race, and caste as a means of maintaining racial purity.
From 1901, through the Censuses, the caste backgrounds of the people were recorded, and castes were classified on the basis of ‘social precedence as recognized by native opinion.’ Through the censuses, the colonial rulers provided the various castes with a rallying point. The castes, which had started organizing themselves on a regional basis through caste conferences and caste newspapers, started mobilizing to record a higher status for themselves. The colonial state came to be seen as the means of raising caste status. The process of Sanskritization was aided by the British government.
The economic changes introduced by the colonial rulers in the 19th century in order to consolidate their rule and intensify the exploitation of India had an impact on the relations of production in the rural areas and created new classes from among the various castes. The commoditization of land, its accessibility to members of all castes, the various revenue settlements — the Zamindari, rayatwari, etc., the introduction of railways, defence works, the colonial education system, the uniform criminal and civil law and the colonial bureaucracy affected the caste system and modified its role in society.
In the land settlements, the British ignored the inalienable rights of the actual cultivators, and in many areas made the intermediaries, the non-cultivating sections that only had a share in the produce traditionally, become the sole proprietors of the land. In the Zamindari settlement areas, the Shudra peasants became tenants at the mercy of the landlords, in other areas, a class of peasant proprietors arose, but, even in this, the larger peasants gained while the actual cultivators became tenants or sharecroppers. The Shudra peasantry was divided into an upper section of the rich; intensified exploitation coupled with famines and other crises, indebted peasants of all the cultivating castes who were pushed into the ranks of the landless. A section of artisans became landless labourers. A class of rural poor, landless or poor peasants, emerged from the ranks of most of the middle and lower castes in the 19th century.
A working class linked to industrial production also emerged from the ranks of the middle and the lower castes. A small section among the lower castes also found avenues for mobility with jobs as small contractors, traders and investors in land. With access to education, service in the army and the government bureaucracy, a class of petty-bourgeoisie also developed within the middle and the lower castes. But they found their avenues blocked by the monopoly of Brahmins over the government jobs.
The introduction of Western education helped the Brahmin castes to monopolize the colonial bureaucracy. With their tradition of learning, and their socially and economically powerful position, the Brahmins and others from the higher castes took Western education and soon came to occupy most of the posts in the administration and judiciary.
The development of new classes among the Non-Brahmin castes led to the growth of a democratic consciousness among them. This was reflected in two processes. Among the upper sections of the Non-Brahmins, for instance, the Kayasthas in the north and the Nairs in Kerala, reformers started organizing caste associations to press for changes in the practices of the caste system, giving up outmoded customs to adjust to the new opportunities available under colonial rule. Among the lower castes too, the petty-bourgeois sections mobilized caste associations to give up occupations that were considered as defiling or degrading, and start emulating the customs of the higher castes in an attempt to get a higher status. The conservative trend among the Non-Brahmin movement was strong among these caste associations of the upper sections. The movements among the Patidars in Gujarat and the Rajputs, and the Marathas led by Shahu Maharaj in Western Maharashtra emphasized the process of Sanskritization and were conservative in their orientation. These attempts were led by the landlord and trading elite sections of these castes and helped them to gain access to positions of power and privilege in the state structure and in electoral politics.
At the same time, the masses of Non-Brahmins were in contradiction with the feudal elite and moneylenders, the social props of the colonial rule, most of whom were from the uppermost castes, especially, Brahmins in many parts of western and south India. Members of these feudal upper castes also monopolized the State bureaucracy. These contradictions led to the emergence of a Non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra and south India, especially, Tamil Nadu. The movement, objectively, had an anti-feudal and anti-imperialist content, but the leadership of the movement could not comprehend the contradictions in this manner and therefore failed to articulate them in this manner.